Bar Yochai – Happy the Nation that Learns from You
by HaRav Dov Begon, Head of Yeshivat Machon Meir.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was privileged to have the day of his passing, which fell out on on Lag BaOmer, become a major celebration in which myriad of the Jewish People go forth and light bonfires in his honor. Those bonfires are like a memorial candle commemorating the lofty soul that merited to be amongst the elite – to see the countenance of the divine presence, to make personal, direct contact with G-d. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai merited this stature by virtue of self-sacrifice. He was ready to exempt the whole world from divine punishment through his suffering instead of them for their sins, like loving parents who are ready to suffer so that their children don’t have to suffer (see Succah 45b). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai particularly felt the pain of the Jewish People and of Eretz Yisrael. He couldn’t bear to have a foreign nation, the Romans, ruling over the People and Land of Israel, and he spoke to the Roman’s detriment. As a result, the Romans pursued him and wished to kill him, and he was forced to hide in a cave for twelve years with his son.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s self-sacrifice for the People and Land of Israel stemmed from his clear faith in and recognition of Israel’s essence and purpose, as well as of the meaning of Jewish rule over Eretz Yisrael for the Jewish People and for all mankind. Not only Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai understood and recognized the connection between the People and Land of Israel, but all the mystics who followed and who continue to follow in his path, such as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, Ramban, the Arizal, Ramchal, the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Vilna Gaon, and others, who exhibited self-sacrifice for Eretz Yisrael, going there despite the great dangers and hardships involved.
Today, as we joyously sing the song, “Bar Yochai, how fortunate you are! Anointed with the oil of joy by your colleagues,” we have to recall that he merited what he did through his self-sacrifice for the People, Land and Torah of Israel. Not only Bar Yochai merited in this way, but all who have followed in his path down through the generations, especially in our own generation, the generation of rebirth and of the ingathering of the exiles, whether they are aware of it or not. The merit from self-sacrifice for the sake of the Jewish People, Torah and Land shall defend them, and through it they in turn bring merit to the entire generation and to all generations. The day is not far off when through us will be fulfilled, “Bar Yochai! Fortunate your forbears! Fortunate the nation that learns from you, fortunate those who dwell on your secret, enveloped in the breastplate of your Urim VeTumim!”
How fortunate, Bar Yochai!
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai merited that the vast majority of the people memorialize him on the anniversary of his death, Lag BaOmer, by lighting bonfires. These bonfires serve as a memorial candle for his noble soul, which to this day has always illuminated the soul of the nation with Torah, in general, and more specifically with the Zohar which he authored. As is known, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. The two of them, master and disciple, both felt the pain of the nation, which in those days was under Roman control. The Romans enacted decrees against the Jewish people, with the goal of humiliating them, subjugating them and weakening them, especially by their decree against Torah study. They knew that nothing so strengthens the Jewish people, giving them the fortitude to withstand the grave crisis following the destruction of the Temple, more than the study of our holy Torah.
Indeed, Rabbi Akiva would gather large crowds and teach Torah. He had no fear of the Romans. Ultimately, however, he was arrested, imprisoned and taken out to be cruelly executed. The Romans combed his flash with iron combs. Yet, in his great love for God, he took upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and his soul departed as he finished reciting the first line of the Shema.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai followed in the path of his master, Rabbi Akiva (see Berachot 61b) and he spoke negatively against the Romans, despite the danger. Ultimately he was compelled to flee from them and to hide for twelve years in a cave, together with his son. Neither Rabbi Akiva nor Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai could bear the humiliation of the Jewish People – the nation that God chose from all others – and they sacrificed themselves for the glory of their people.
Today, after thousands of years of exile in which the glory of Israel was trampled to the dust, how fortunate we are and how good our portion that we are returning to our land, and that the glory of the Jewish people is being reinstated. The Torah is returning to its abode. The decrees of the Romans and of all of Israel’s enemies down through the exile to prevent Jews from learning Torah did not succeed. The self-sacrifice of Rabbi Akiva and of all the Jews over Torah learning did not go to waste. Today, thank God, the State of Israel is the world center of Torah learning. Also the sacrifice of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai for the glory of Israel is defending us, and on Lag BaOmer the Jewish masses honor the day of his passing with an enormous celebration at Meiron, and with bonfires throughout the country.
More and more, we are seeing revealed the great thirst of our nation to learn about the light of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, which is increasing from generation to generation and from day to day. That light is hastening our own redemption and the redemption of the world. In that spirit we sing, “How fortunate, Bar Yochai! Anointed by your colleagues with the oil of joy!”